THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

wsc326England face Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup but they won't be the first of the home nations to do so and would be wise to heed their neighbour's traumatic experience, writes Archie MacGregor

Costa Rica were not supposed to be an accident waiting to happen for Scotland at the 1990 World Cup finals. After the hubris and humiliation of Argentina 78 followers of the national team had a dozen years of intensive therapy about where we stood in the global order. Never again would we take anything for granted at a major tournament.

Jock Stein, manager from 1979 to 1985, set the new tone, his gravitas demanding a more sober perspective as to what Scotland should realistically aspire. After Stein’s death on the night of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, Alex Ferguson took interim charge with the awfully sensible SFA technocrat Andy Roxburgh coming in after the finals. Apart from picking squads and studiously clutching his chin during matches, Roxburgh’s management responsibilities seemed to be almost entirely focused on making sure the expectations of the Tartan Army remained nailed to the floor.

The team’s performances in the early part of his tenure ensured he didn’t have to work too hard at it. A dreadfully dull campaign in the Euro 88 qualifiers was followed by a flying start and then a near catastrophic nosedive on the road to Italy, which saw Scotland desperately clinging on for a point in their final game against Norway just to make it over the line. As the countdown to the finals got underway, a 3-1 defeat at home to Egypt seemed like a pretty fair indicator of our capabilities.

Plonked in Group C along with Brazil and Sweden, as well as the Costa Ricans, hopes of anything other than the customary early exit for Scotland were nevertheless given some encouragement. FIFA in their wisdom were persisting with a format whereby the four best third-place finishers across the six groups would make it through to the last 16. In theory three points could be enough.

In fairness, even though most Scots recognised that we were no great shakes the World Cup debutants from Central America seemed to go out of their way to suggest they were makeweights. They had muddled through qualification thanks in no small part to Mexico serving a FIFA ban at the time. Their pre-tournament friendly results were even more indifferent than Scotland’s, with an acclimatisation trip to Europe yielding a solitary win over an Italian third-tier team. After witnessing them lose 1-0 to Wales at Ninian Park the Scottish press decided enough was enough – this lot were there for the taking. Warning: Costa Rica beatable was the tongue-in-cheek headline for the Scotsman’s match report.

Weaknesses were identified throughout the squad, none more so than goalkeeper Luis Gabelo Conejo, who only played second-tier football back home and was perceived to have a chronic allergy to crosses. Yet perhaps it was all just a carefully choreographed game of deception on the part of their manager Bora Milutinovic. The Serb, who managed five different nations in as many consecutive World Cup finals, has been labelled “wily” so often throughout his career you could be excused for thinking it was his first name. He certainly hadn’t skipped his homework on the Scots, whom he saw as lacking in width, and he set up his defence accordingly. Somehow he also coaxed the game of a lifetime out of Conejo.

In Genoa the much-derided goalkeeper calmly hoovered up every speculative cross that was hurled at him and made a couple of outstanding close-range saves from Mo Johnston. With Scotland’s focal point in attack being the blunt instrument that was Alan “Rambo” McInally there was almost an air of serenity about the underdogs, summed up by their beautifully executed goal scored by Juan Cayasso after 49 minutes. A cute backheel by Claudio Jara sent Cayasso clear and his gently chipped shot was enough to beat Jim Leighton, whose confidence, in contrast to Conejo’s, was at rock bottom having recently been dropped by Ferguson for Manchester United’s FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace.

Even with most of the second half remaining the wholly uninspired Scots were doomed and it finished 1-0. The Scotsman branded it Scotland’s poorest result at a World Cup finals – quite a feat – and still found it hard to accept the Costa Ricans as anything other than no-hopers, insisting that “The Central Americans will not collect any more points from Group C”. In fact they went on to beat Sweden in a rousing final game to advance to the knockout stages. Scotland, perverse as ever, turned in a decent performance to also overcome the fancied Swedes, before going down 1-0 to Brazil. Two points were not enough to qualify as goal difference turned out to be our undoing yet again.

Will England fare any better? Well, no sooner had Costa Rica been drawn in their group for this year’s finals than Roy Hodgson appeared to be quoting Roxburgh verbatim when he warned that they were not to be underestimated. And of course the game is being played in Belo Horizonte, where England lost to the US in 1950. What could possibly go wrong?

From WSC 326 April 2014

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